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Families say Hurricane Maria’s death toll was preventable — and neglect is to blame

Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, the Associated Press and Quartz compiled an extensive database of nearly 500 victims of Hurricane Maria whose families say that mismanagement, poor communication and damaged infrastructure were to blame for the deaths. Ana Campoy, Latin America reporter for Quartz, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Dallas.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's been a year since Hurricane Maria left a path of devastation and destruction across the Caribbean and in Puerto Rico. The death toll from the storm has been disputed, particularly in Puerto Rico. Until recently the number stood at 64. But findings from a report commissioned by the governor raised that number to nearly 3,000. Now, a new investigation by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism, the Associated Press and Quartz has compiled an extensive database of nearly 500 of the victims and how they died. I spoke recently with Quartz reporter Anna Campoy about the investigation.

    So you did the hard work of going in speaking to the families of these deceased. Where do they feel the responsibility lies in the tragedy that's happened to their families?

  • ANNA CAMPOY:

    Yes. We talked to two dozens and dozens of people. They're mostly focused on their grief and they haven't done a in-depth analysis of who was to blame but they they see that they didn't have what they needed. They weren't protected. We separately did that analysis and we found that there is a lot of blame to go around, many different actors local and federal.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We have so many different types of counts. This is kind of adding a little bit to the confusion. I remember Harvard had a study in July. They had a number somewhere on 4,600 and then George Washington had 2,975. The New York Times had a count of 1,052 in August of last year. CNN went to funeral homes and talked to 499. How do we reconcile this and how do we make this easy for people to understand?

  • ANNA CAMPOY:

    So all of those studies that you mentioned are studies that are based on demographic data. You basically take the people who, the number of people who died in the four months after the hurricane and you compare that to the average number of people who die usually, in previous years. And the difference is called the excess deaths. And so all of those reports you cited,are analysis of the excess deaths. What we did was, we collected case by case, individual cases, real people with their names, their ages, the circumstances of their death. And we received information about 487 cases.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In your story, you go through kind of a timeline of events all happening in the big picture and then also what was happening to some of these individual people's lives. What are you most surprised by? I mean some of these seem very preventable deaths.

  • ANNA CAMPOY:

    I think that what strikes me the most is the duration of the disaster. I've covered hurricanes in the past. Then, during the first few days after the hurricane you have very chaotic situations but that usually ends pretty fast. And here you had people whose lives were completely up ended for months.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is Puerto Rico ready for another significant storm event.

  • ANNA CAMPOY:

    The governor himself has said it is not. We tried to get new plans and officials, local officials didn't provide a copy for us to review. Separately, we talked to statistics institute. What we also learned is that statistics are so important in order to guide the response. What happened in Puerto Rico was that we didn't know how many people died in the beginning and so people didn't know where to send help or how much help was needed. And so, it also seems that Puerto Rico is not prepared to have a more accurate count the next time around. And we can expect that to affect the response again.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right and Anna Campoy of Quartz joining us from Dallas. Thanks a lot.

  • ANNA CAMPOY:

    Thank you.

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